David R. Henderson  

Response to a New Zealander

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A man whom I've become friends with in the last month or so often shares thoughts on email about political issues. He sent along an email he received from a friend and it includes an email from a New Zealand friend.

The New Zealander's email contains two confusions. I think they're basic and I worry that most EconLog readers will too, making this post unnecessary. But just in case, I'm posting the exact wording of both the New Zealander's comments (with his name changed to "X" to protect his privacy) and the exact wording of my responses.

I wrote to my American friend:

I have a different take on X's letter. I think he misunderstands both the political system and the nature of borders.

First, the political system.

X writes:

My understanding is the Trump was quite clear, before being elected, that folk illegally in the US would be returned to the place from whence they came. He said that this is what he would do, he got elected and wants to do it. I don't quite get why the Democrats have a problem with this.

My [DRH's] response:

They have a problem with it because they don't agree with it. We can talk about why they don't agree, but X seems to be saying that simply because Trump got elected on a promise to build a wall (true) and deport illegal immigrants (true), the Democrats should go along. X lives in a country with a parliamentary system like that of Canada, where I grew up. The executive and legislative branch are the same. In such a system, if the Prime Minister and his party get elected on a platform promise, then yes, that's what they are committed to do. But that's not our system. We have an executive branch that differs from the legislative branch. When politicians in the legislative branch disagree with the President, they are acting within their delegated powers to oppose his policies. I'm not discussing the merits of the wall. I'm simply discussing whether the Democrats are somehow breaking the rules or acting illegitimately by opposing it.

Second, secure border.

X writes:

It seems to me that if you don't have secure and well managed borders you actually don't have a country.

My [DRH's] response:

I don't think that's true. Think about something we both know something about: the border between Virginia and West Virginia. It's not "well managed." It's not "secure." Does that mean the Virginians don't have a state?


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COMMENTS (30 to date)
Hazel Meade writes:

The problem to me is that the distinction between citizens and residents who are legally allowed to live in the US and those who are excluded is in many cases arbitrary and unjust. "People who are here illegaly" includes, unjustly in my opinion, many people who have been here since childhood, people who are now married to American citizens, and/or those who have US citizen children that would become father/motherless or be forced to move to a foreign country to remain with their parents (Jorge Garcia meets all three criteria). In my opinion, removing these people from the country is profoundly morally wrong in precisely the same way it would be wrong to do the exact same things to an American citizen who was born here. It inflicts harm upon people who by rights ought to be considered US citizens. Furthermore, the people arguing for their deportation frequently resort to arguments based on their ethnicity - such as by claiming that Hispanics as a group are unfit for American citizenship, due to their supposed cultural propensity for socialism and/or authoritarianism. Imagine what people would think if people made such claims about ethnic minorities in the US who are legally citizens. Yet somehow this argument is supposed to get a pass merely because the people who are being targeted lack the formal paperwork?

Roger Sweeny writes:

A state is a division of a country; it is not a country.

Virginians don't have a country. Or rather, they have the same country as West Virginians.

Dave writes:

The Virginia example makes no sense to me. By the original claim and your testimony, we should conclude that Virginia is not a country, and indeed it isn't.

David R Henderson writes:

@Roger Sweeny and Dave,
Let me explain further. If you have to have secure borders to be a country, then why don’t you have to have secure borders to be a state?
Or, take another example. I remember being shocked on my first trip to Europe in 1994 when I took a train from Paris to Brussels and, by the time I thought we should have entered Belgium, I turned to my seat mate and asked when we would hit the border and go through their customs and immigration. He explained that that no longer happened. So by the New Zealander’s criterion, there’s no such country as France and no such country as Belgium. But there is a country called France and there is a country called Belgium.

Thomas writes:

I live in Texas, a state that is a net attractor (by a wide margin) of residents of other states. California is a leading supplier of neo-Texans. Mexico (and points south) is also a leading supplier of neo-Texans. The character of the state is undoubtedly different than it would be if it weren't for those immigrants. Instead of being about 55 percent Republican, it might well rival states like Wyoming and Utah, which are about 70 percent Republican. I'm not a Republican, but the policies that matter the most to me -- taxes, spending, regulation, and justice -- lead me to vote Republican. With a further influx of immigrants, Texas could be Democrat-controlled, and then it would be an entirely different state.

Vivian Darkbloom writes:

"If you have to have secure borders to be a country, then why don’t you have to have secure borders to be a state?"

A "country" has the authority to secure its borders; the fact that they may choose not to do so in limited circumstances (e.g., by agreeing to the multi-lateral Schengen Accord) isn't relevant.

If the EU were to acheive full integration similar to the United States, France and Belgium would cease to be "countries" and would become "states" within a larger sovereign EU. The fact that they are still "countries" is demonstrated by the following developments that are relevant to your train ride:

https://ec.europa.eu/home-affairs/what-we-do/policies/borders-and-visas/schengen/reintroduction-border-control_en

If West Virginia were not part of a "country", i.e, the United States (which, in theory at least, secures its borders) it would need, and have the right to do so itself. It has ceded that responsiblity to the federal government of which it is a part, not to another country or to the world.

Jon Murphy writes:

@Roger Sweeney and Dave:

A state and a country are interchangeably used. It makes so terminological sense to say a country is defined by secure borders, but a state is not.

MikeP writes:

So was the United States not a country before the 1924 Immigration Act? Prior to that legislation the borders were largely open: The US needed a reason to reject a prospective immigrant rather than a reason to accept him.

The positive fact that a sovereign state has the power to prohibit entry of harmless people is not a normative argument that it should.

Matthias Goergens writes:

Indeed even passports are a relatively recent nuisance. They were first introduced on a wide scale driving the Napoleonic wars, then abolished as unnecessary bureaucracy in the 1870s, and only reintroduced for first world war.

Mike W writes:

@ Hazel Meade: "...who by rights ought to be considered US citizens."

By what "rights"? Maybe by fairness or compassion or justice...but not by any legal rights. How does ignoring the law create rights?

Sinclair Davidson writes:

In any event the border between Virginia and West Virginia is secure and well-managed. Try enforcing a Virginian state law in West Virginia and see what happens. Your point is that the state borders in the US are not militarised. But that is not the same thing as not being secure or well-managed.

Dan W. writes:

MikeP,

I welcome a return to 19th century immigration policy if we return to 19th century mindset of a Federal Government that is actually limited in form and function. A mindset best demonstrated by President Cleveland who wrote:

"I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution, and I do not believe that the power and duty of the General Government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit. A prevalent tendency to disregard the limited mission of this power and duty should, I think, be steadfastly resisted, to the end that the lesson should be constantly enforced that though the people support the Government the Government should not support the people."

In the famous words of Benjamin Franklin:

"When the people find that they can vote themselves money that will herald the end of the republic."

It is an obvious erosion of liberty that the citizens of America can vote themselves benefits, via their elected representatives. The damage is complete when the demands of the citizenry are crowded out by non-citizens. At this point the question deserves asking: Whose country is it?

Pemakin writes:

Seems to me that our border with Mexico is already more secure than most (at least its patrolled). Most countries have a lot of illegal border crossing where ever there is a significant political or economic motivation. There are plenty of examples in Europe, Africa and Latin America. X would therefore exclude most countries from his definition. Except, wait a moment, for countries that are islands, such as perhaps New Zealand. They have secure borders because they have immigration staff at every airport and port. Seems like this guy is just naive.

Billy Kaubashine writes:

The states entered into an agreement (the constitution) to allow a central government to handle immigration.

If you are suggesting that the United States should enter into agreements with foreign countries to allow some supranational entity to govern our immigration policy and enforcement, I would quote lyrics from the Beatles' "Revolution" : "You ain't gonna make it with anyone anyhow".

MikeP writes:

The states entered into an agreement (the constitution) to allow a central government to handle immigration.

There is nothing in the Constitution that empowers the federal government to handle immigration.

Naturalization, yes. Importation of slaves, yes. Immigration, no.

Taeyoung writes:
Does that mean the Virginians don't have a state?

I mean, kind of? It's certainly not a state with all the appurtenances of sovereignty, since they ceded much of the relevant power to the federal government (not just immigration, but interstate regulation, and in modern times, the whole Commerce Clause regulation of in-state "commercial" activity as well). I don't think that analogy works the way you seem to think it does.

David R Henderson writes:

@Billy Kaubashine,
The states entered into an agreement (the constitution) to allow a central government to handle immigration.
Even if your statement were true, it’s irrelevant to the point I’m making.
I just notice that MikeP pointed out that your factual claim above is wrong. Note also that for the first few decades after the U.S. Constitution was implemented (in 1787), states, not the feds, regulated immigration.
If you are suggesting that the United States should enter into agreements with foreign countries to allow some supranational entity to govern our immigration policy and enforcement, I would quote lyrics from the Beatles' "Revolution" : "You ain't gonna make it with anyone anyhow".
I’m glad you led with “If,” because no, I was not saying that.

Jon Murphy writes:

@Taeyoung

It's certainly not a state with all the appurtenances of sovereignty, since they ceded much of the relevant power to the federal government (not just immigration, but interstate regulation, and in modern times, the whole Commerce Clause regulation of in-state "commercial" activity as well). I don't think that analogy works the way you seem to think it does.

I disagree: I think the analogy works perfectly given your quoted comment: Virginia is somewhat a lesser state because they ceded some of their sovereignty to a different government not because they have unsecured borders. Nations and countries/states are defined by authority, not how well-secured their borders are vis-a-vis immigration.

George writes:

"It seems to me that if you don't have secure and well managed borders you actually don't have a country. "

History agrees with this statement because sovereignty is a country level property. "States" as in a subdivision of a country on the other hand are just a sub-unit of organization. They do not compete with other countries for sovereignty. They may compete with other states though. If a state does compete with a country it is generally viewed as either a city-state (depending on size) or simply a country. Here I mean competition for the monopoly on the legitimate use of force.

Also regarding the Virginia and West Virginia example. That "unsecure" and "unmanaged" border is a figment of your imagination. It's in fact highly managed and extremely secure. For tax purposes this border is extremely well respected. For organizing state and highway construction and maintenance it is again well respected. For conforming to daylight savings vs not (Arizona) it is relevant. If I were to try and expand my state's border through legislation my neighboring states would give me hell and I would be seeing the inside of the supreme court in no time. For voting and representation the state border is quite secure in where the political boundaries end. Final and probs best example, try to live in New Mexico and work in Texas and see if you can play the "unmanaged border" game with the NM state income tax. Hint you're gonna have to pay it since after all working in a tax-free state is still taxing.

My point is that if a state couldn't enforce it's laws on me then yes your analogy would work it would mean NM wasn't a state (or at least it wasn't behaving like one).

George writes:

@MikeP

"So was the United States not a country before the 1924 Immigration Act?"

See the Mexican–American War to answer your question. The ability to secure and manage the borders includes but is not limited to immigration.

MikeP writes:

See the Mexican–American War to answer your question.

Okay, that doesn't help at all. Was the US not a country because it allowed a purported military incursion on its southern border? Or was it a country because it responded to that intrusion? Or was it not a country or a country because it took the opportunity after the purported incursion to conquer six states' worth of territory?

We've already established that there was almost no control over immigration in the mid 19th century. Indeed, even after 1924 there was precious little restriction or enforcement against entry over the Mexican border until the 1940s.

I guess I don't know what you're trying to say with your example.

Niko Davor writes:

@Henderson,

Open-ish migration really does undermine the idea of sovereign nations owned by their citizens, and I believe that is your intention. You advocate that nations should not prefer their own citizens over foreigners and that citizens shouldn't really own their nation any more than a foreigner. I don't believe I'm mis-representing your view. I don't see why you are being coy and evasive about this.

@Hazel Meade,

If it's immoral to deport illegal/undocumented people who have lived in the US for a while, it's immoral to prohibit entry of new foreigners. And if it's wrong for the US or Europe to discriminate on ethnicity and have a semi-hidden preference for white people, it's wrong for any nation to have any hidden ethnic or religious preference.

So, I clearly made the case for open-ish borders, which I'm sympathetic with. My big objection is it seems quite one-sided and unlikely to be reciprocated. I understand the argument that it's wrong for US/Canada/Europe to have a white identity that gives ethnic whites preference over others, but will that be reciprocated? Will Japan and China and India and the Gulf States and Israel and the nations of Africa similarly commit to having no ethnic, religious, cultural, or demographic preferences? That seems unlikely.

@MikeP,

"So was the United States not a country before the 1924 Immigration Act?"

Before 1924, the US was a more racist, tribal, discriminatory nation, that aggressively enforced the distinction between members and non-members. They never preached nor practiced the idea that anyone of any race/religion/tribe was free to join and gain full membership. Similarly, a classic pre-nation tribe, didn't necessarily have clear and explicit rules on who was a member and under what terms could non-members apply and gain membership. But tribes are based on preferences of members over non-members and some system of exclusion.

This argument seems more designed to derail and confuse rather than make a genuine point.

MikeP writes:

Before 1924, the US was a more racist, tribal, discriminatory nation, that aggressively enforced the distinction between members and non-members.

And yet the US government itself managed not to abrogate the individual rights of millions of prospective immigrants before 1924, the gradual closing of borders in 1921, 1917, and 1882 notwithstanding. The Progressive Era was a font of all kind of awfulness, but the government's bringing its monopoly powers of force to service the racist, tribal, and discriminatory tendencies of portions of the population to prohibit the free movement of tens of millions of people is among the worst.

Of course 1924 is a genuinely important watershed. Before 1924 immigrants were allowed entry unless they were rejected. Now immigrants are rejected unless they are allowed entry.

David R Henderson writes:

@Niko Davor,
Open-ish migration really does undermine the idea of sovereign nations owned by their citizens, and I believe that is your intention. You advocate that nations should not prefer their own citizens over foreigners and that citizens shouldn't really own their nation any more than a foreigner. I don't believe I'm mis-representing your view. I don't see why you are being coy and evasive about this.
You certainly are misrepresenting the point I’m making in this post. Even if I believed in allowing zero immigrants into the United States, it’s simply factually wrong to say that "if you don't have secure and well managed borders you actually don't have a country.” That, you might recall, is the point I'm addressing in this post.

Jon Murphy writes:

What I've noticed from most commentators objecting to Prof. Henderson's point on this post is that the concerns regarding a country/state surround sovereignty, not borders. Borders are symptomatic of sovereignty (the arguments appear to be that losing one's borders leads to losing sovereignty).

Having unsecured borders may be a sign of weak sovereignty, but, to Prof. Henderson's point, the security of borders vis-a-vis immigration does not appear to be a defining characteristic of a state/country. In fact, if a nation chooses to have unsecured or well-managed borders, then it may be a sign of strong sovereignty.

In short, the impression I am left with reading comments is that it is soverignty, not borders, that define a country.

MikeP writes:

...the security of borders vis-a-vis immigration does not appear to be a defining characteristic of a state/country.

Exactly. The essential purpose of borders is not to keep out other territories' people or goods: It is to keep out other territories' laws and enforcement.

If you are caught up with the former, you make mistakes such as claiming as truths patent falsehoods such as "...if you don't have secure and well managed borders you actually don't have a country."

George writes:

@Jon Murphy

"What I've noticed from most commentators objecting to Prof. Henderson's point on this post is that the concerns regarding a country/state surround sovereignty, not borders."

Under the Westphalian notion of the nation state in order to have sovereignty a finite state must figure out where that sovereignty ends which is usually at the border of another sovereign. Therefore all nation states have borders. So yes if you don't have secure and managed borders then another sovereign can impose itself and you have a country only in name. The power of internal self rule implies the ability to regulate immigration among very many other things. So immigration enforcement could be up to subdivided states or to a central authority it doesn't matter the point is immigration enforcement is a legitimate choice for the legislative/executive authorities in nations and it is why every nation that I'm aware of currently chooses to regulates it.

Most people view power as a zero-sum game so by giving up on border enforcement it would most likely be viewed as weakness or reduced sovereignty not as a sign of strong sovereignty. Prior to WWI the US not only appeared weak it was weak. In fact during the US civil war Britain & France considered intervening and resolving the conflict quickly in order to bring peace and favorable trading terms. All the while the Brits sold arms to both sides and ran through the Union's naval blockade of the South.

@MikeP

You are narrowly defining what a nation can do with it's borders. Yes the defining characteristic of a state is sovereignty (my point about the mexico US war) but this implies that a nation can regulate it's own borders by enforcing immigration standards of it's choosing. If a country cannot legitimately control it's borders (even if it chooses to do so) with respect to immigration enforcement then it is not a fully sovereign nation. This is my interpretation of Mr. X's claim and I think he's right about this. Given how little context was provided by DH I think it's uncharitable to assume Mr. X literally means that without immigration enforcement anarchy ensues i.e. a country fails and ceases to exist. That would be a dramatic reading to say the least and highly unlikely but I wouldn't go so far as to call it a "patent falsehood" either since it could happen if for example immigrants bring in a very lethal new disease, or new pests etc.

Jon Murphy writes:

@George

Under the Westphalian notion of the nation state in order to have sovereignty a finite state must figure out where that sovereignty ends which is usually at the border of another sovereign. Therefore all nation states have borders. So yes if you don't have secure and managed borders then another sovereign can impose itself and you have a country only in name.

Ok, fine, but my point remains: borders are symptomatic but not definitional. It is sovereignty that defines, not borders.

Niko Davor writes:

@MikeP,
"And yet the US government itself managed not to abrogate the individual rights of millions of prospective immigrants before 1924"

The pre 1924 US absolutely abrogated individual rights to enter the US and join the nation as members. They just relied less on formal immigration laws, and more on classic ethnic/religious/tribal discrimination and hostility.

A more classical tribe, like the Carib Indians or the Zulus, probably didn't have an immigration policy nor formalized laws abrogating anyone's rights to join their tribes, but they sure didn't have an open membership policy, and they absolutely abrogated the rights of others, not just to join their tribe, but to live peacefully separately.

This argument you present is flippant, non-serious, and deranged.

@Henderson,

Fair enough. I don't even agree with the statement as written. Of course, you can have a country with poorly managed borders. Most countries have poorly managed borders.

A classic, pre-nation, tribe doesn't typically have immigration policy or anything close to "well managed borders". The more defining factor is that they aggressively discriminate between members and non-members, and have some selective, exclusive, discriminatory process regarding non-members joining the tribe.

While I'm not a linguistic expert or language lawyer, the model of truly open-membership governance tied to a region that has no preference to any particular ethnicity/religion/language/culture/history/politics probably isn't a nation or a country by most definitions of those words.

MikeP writes:

This argument you present is flippant, non-serious, and deranged.

It may be difficult to understand given your pre-Akkadian vocabulary, but the argument I present is based on individual rights, constitutions, legislation, institutions, and customs. It is formulated in the common language used for thinking about people and states that has been common in the West for the past several centuries.

As is blatantly obvious from migrations of Irish, southern and eastern Europeans, Chinese, West Indians, etc., etc., prior to 1924, millions of people who were not part of the original American "tribe" were allowed to immigrate and were considered lawful permanent residents and hence did not have their individual rights abrogated -- at least not nearly to the extent as the vast majority of prospective immigrants after 1924.

While I'm not a linguistic expert or language lawyer, the model of truly open-membership governance tied to a region that has no preference to any particular ethnicity/religion/language/culture/history/politics probably isn't a nation or a country by most definitions of those words.

Fortunately for both New Zealand and the United States, their respective regions do have preferences for a particular culture, history, and politics.

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